PhD Admissions: Letters of Recommendation

Asking for letters of recommendation (LORs) can be a very daunting task. Why? Because you have no idea what the response will be. I was definitely nervous when I had to ask, but thankfully it all worked out! Here are things to consider when asking for LORs along with the email template I used:

PRO TIP #1: ASK FOR LETTERS EARLY! I emailed my three potential letter writers in September so that they would have at least 2 months to work on the letter. I was also planning on applying for the NSF GRFP and since the application deadline is usually sometime in October, I wanted to give them ample time. Don’t be afraid to send reminder emails as the deadline gets closer. Professors are busy, so giving them friendly reminders will (most likely) be appreciated.

PRO TIP #2: Be sure to ask individuals who you feel know you best. If you only received an ‘A’ in their course and that’s it, they may not be the best choice. The three people that I asked were: (1) my undergraduate research advisor, who also taught two of my courses, (2) my summer REU PI, and (3) the RISE program director, who was also one of my course instructors.

PRO TIP #3: If you’ve been out of school for a few years and have lost contact with your former professors, still try to get in touch with them and see what they say. If it’s been a significant amount of time (e.g., 5+ years), ask other people such as your employer to write your letters. Admissions committees tend to be understanding of this.

PRO TIP #4: Ask for a strong and positive letter of recommendation! This will make a huge difference.

PRO TIP #5: Make writing this letter a pleasant experience for your letter writers. Be sure to have most of your materials ready (or almost ready) when you send your LOR request email in the event that they say yes (hopefully they do!). These materials include:

  • Updated CV (or resume)
  • Unofficial transcript (can usually be downloaded from your undergrad institution’s online portal)
  • Writing sample (in case your letter writers have feedback on it)
  • Statement of purpose (a draft is OK)
  • Personal statement (a draft is OK)
  • Any work (e.g., final paper) that you completed in their class if they were one of your course instructors
  • Program info for LOR writers (can put this in a Word doc):
  • It might also be helpful to include a Word doc with all of the courses that you have taken with your letter writer, particularly if it is more than one:

PRO TIP #6: Once your letter writers agree to write you a LOR and you send them your materials, start adding their names into the application portals for each of the schools that you are applying to. Fill out all of the information about them that you can including their name, institution, and title (i.e., assistant professor/associate professor/professor). You can also let them know that you will be sending them links to each LOR form before you enter their information. Try your best to send all of the links on the same day and follow-up with your letter writers to make sure they have received them. Be sure to find out whether the LOR links will be sent to your letter writers BEFORE or AFTER you submit your application so that you can prepare accordingly.

PRO TIP #7: One resource that I used to keep track of when different parts of my application were finished/submitted was Trello! Here are the sections I included in my board.

PRO TIP #8: When you make it to the section of the application that asks whether you want to waive your right to view your LORs, ALWAYS say yes. Your letters are viewed more favorably because the assumption is that you haven’t seen or edited them in any way.

LOR Email Template

NOTE: Feel free to tweak the email to your needs! I was relatively close to my letter writers and kept in contact with them regularly which is why my email was on the shorter side.

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